The English like nothing better than the idea that the French hate us. Bradley Wiggins, an Englishman, wins the Tour de France, and we are full of in-votre-face triumphalism. British journalists search the French media for sour grapes. How the frogs must be fuming! Beaten by a rosbif on their own turf!
Yet if the French were all so bitter about Wiggins, why did thousands of them line the Champs-Elysées on Sunday to cheer him home? Far from being grouchy, France seemed eager to hail Wiggins as the likeable and quirky champion that he is.
It’s true that some French papers complained about the boringness of this year’s Tour. But that was part of a longstanding gripe about the contest being too technical and unromantic, i.e. not French. It had little to do with Wiggins or Anglophobia. It was L’Equipe, after all, that pictured the race leader under the affectionate headline ‘Wiggo le Froggy’, in recognition of his fluency in their language.
English correspondents seemed baffled by the magnanimity of the French, and struggled to reciprocate. Ian Chadband, the Telegraph’s chief sports correspondent, managed to admit that ‘even the French had learnt to appreciate’ Bradley’s heroics. But he couldn’t stop himself from adding that ‘this really had become what the hosts had dreaded as La Promenade des Anglais’.
That’s the thing. It tickles our national vanity to pretend that the French hold a deep grudge against us — La Perfide Albion, etc — and it’s fun, too, in a tabloid sort of way. We saved them from the Krauts, twice, and they still can’t stand us. Silly surrender-monkeys.
The trouble is, it isn’t true. The French are not anti-English these days; if anything, they are more pro-English than ever. The Olympics are a case in point. We fantasise that the French are still sulking about London beating Paris to host the 2012 Games. In fact, they seem more excited than we are. While the English press has (rightly) been attacking the spirit-sucking bureaucracy of the IOC and Locog, Le Figaro has been gushing about the ‘durable and innovative’ legacy the Games will bequeath to London.
A Eurostar spokeswoman told me this week she had seen ‘huge’ interest from French customers in the last few weeks. ‘It is almost as if they think of these Games as theirs, too, seeing as they’re so close,’ she said. Bénédicte Paviot, UK correspondent of the news channel France 24, agreed. ‘Check the French airwaves,’ she said. ‘You’ll find masses of coverage every single day about the Olympics and everything that surrounds them. The French also like the fact they will not have to pick up the bill, particularly in these challenging economic times.’
French enthusiasm for London is already well established. More French people now reportedly live in the British capital than in Nice or Nantes, the fifth and sixth most populous cities in France. It’s not just bankers in South Ken; arty types are setting up ‘creative’ enterprises and buying and renting property in the East End. The Parisian rich are attracted by lower UK taxes, especially since President François Hollande is now chasing them away with a 75 per cent rate on anyone earning over £800, 000, on top of various other punitive ‘wealth taxes’. The trendies, meanwhile, are drawn by London’s openness, its eccentricity and its, er, multiculturalism. (Our capital is hardly an inter-racial utopia, but it is fair to say, overall, that London has had more success than Paris in integrating immigrants.)
It’s not just London’s cosmopolitanism. The French like English humour, fashion, pop music, even food (see David Chazan, above). French people detest vulgarity above all else — their greatest objection to Nicolas Sarkozy was that he was a bit naff, ‘trop bling-bling’ — and are therefore interested in any vestiges of the English class system that they can find. To them, it seems a pleasing contrast to the American preoccupation with wealth as status. The monarchy, in particular, is a source of fascination. My mother is French, and she and my French relations were more gripped by the royal wedding and the Diamond Jubilee than my English family. One aunt swoons with admiration for Catherine Middleton. ‘Elle est si élégante,’ she says, which is about as big a compliment as a French woman can give.
Let’s not get carried away. The French still think of France as the alpha and omega of civilisation. They regard themselves as superior intellectually, ça va sans dire. The English might be inventive and well-organised, but they are not 1. ‘Sometimes the English think they are thinking,’ said Henri Fauconnier.
Yet French snootiness towards the English probably peaked in the 19th century, when Britain was still at the height of her powers. As Britain’s strength has waned, so has French antipathy. No sane Frenchman today would share Léon Bloy’s assessment in 1894: ‘England is to the world what the devil is to man.’
It must be British insecurity, then, this clinging to the hope that the French despise us when they don’t. It makes us feel we still matter. Most Englishmen would struggle to accept the truth: the French of the 21st century find us interesting, peculiar, even fun on occasion — they think of us much as we might think of the Irish, or Jamaicans. They just don’t care enough to be jealous.